The futility of folly, the frailty of life, and death’s evening score.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
It is indisputable that Ecclesiastes is one of the most bizarre books in the canon of Scripture. This extended journal entry, of sorts, opens to us the mind of one of the greatest humans to ever walk this earth. Great not necessarily for his morality (which was often wanting) but for his achievements and advancements in many different realms of human development. From a literary sense, then, the sweetness of Ecclesiastes is due in large part to its unusual origin.
As you read of the Teacher’s persistent examining and exploring and coming up empty, don’t neglect to recognize how rare it is for a person of this magnitude to divulge such personal insights. The pages of this book are peculiar primarily because they humanize the Teacher, a royal monarch, in an unparalleled fashion. This accounts for the unexpected language and unorthodox method by which the Teacher seeks to engage his audience with the truth of God. Ecclesiastes 2 is a more particular retelling of the Teacher’s exploits of things done “under the sun,” wherein we’re immediately confronted with this man of wisdom turning into a man of wandering.
Profound and perpetual wandering.
For us, the Teacher serves as a nomadic sage, traversing all the earthly offerings for something abiding, something permanent, something eternal. In that way, he shows us just how deep mankind’s descent goes in his pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. The inherent flaw in our fallen logic remains the idea that consolation and contentment are determined by circumstance. Thus, what’s miserable or uncomfortable or tragic isn’t intrinsic but external.
But such a line of thinking is ludicrous, as it fails to recognize that the seed of misery and heartache lives within the beating heart of every breathing person. The nature of the Fall is ineludible grief. Such is the paradox of the stand-up comedian who through charisma and showmanship attempts to give his audience what he cannot give himself. Indeed, many of the best comics in years gone by have been those who were deeply flawed in their quest for existential reconciliation. In a real way, they are living parables of mankind’s perpetual crusade for meaning and peace in a broken world.
What Ecclesiastes does, however, is invite us into the misery and discomfort of “once-Eden” in order to sit in the unexpected grace that’s found there. I would contend that this book is all the proof necessary to counter the notions of “Christian escapism,” “spiritual separatism,” and the like. The Christian’s system of religion in no way avoids the tragedies that befall our world in the aftermath of Genesis 3. Rather, it engages them to shine a spotlight on their frailty and futility and on the Faithful One who’s sitting with us in the ashes.
Our Teacher begins his prosecution of the things “under the sun” by putting pleasure on the stand. “I will test you with pleasure,” he says to himself, “enjoy what is good.” And so he does, but without new results. “It turned out to be futile,” he reports. (Ecc 2:1) He then moves from pleasing himself to entertaining himself, but this, too, doesn’t work: “It is madness . . . What does this accomplish?” (Ecc 2:2) The Teacher forages after earthly delights which never seem to fill the reservoir of desire in his soul. The glitz and glamor of pleasure and pageantry promise a more vivid world to be enjoyed. But the glisten of this new world vanishes quicker than it flashes. “The crumbs of the Gospel,” writes Charles Bridges, “are infinitely richer than the dainties of the world.”
In this way, we’re made to see that hedonistic pursuits lead to nothing but hollowness. Certainly nothing of substance. (Ecc 2:3) Pleasure produces nothing permanent. And the soul of man is craving permanency. Indeed, such is what makes the concept of “Paradise” or heaven so intriguing for believers and nonbelievers alike. The notion of a permanent, existential happiness, however that’s defined, is the universal yearning of all mankind. It’s the tie that binds generations together, from the Teacher’s day till now. In sharp contrast, though, the Teacher show us that life’s diversions — laughter, leisure — don’t offer anything lasting. “This too is futile.”
Our Teacher moves from amusements to achievements. “I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made gardens and parks for myself and planted every kind of fruit tree in them. I constructed reservoirs for myself from which to irrigate a grove of flourishing trees.” (Ecc 2:4–6) He busies himself with all manner of construction projects and agrarian efforts in order to find some accomplishment to which he can attach his name. But in the end, all the elaborate employments with which he occupied himself did nothing to rescue his soul from the futility of folly and frailty of life itself. Instead of singing contented praises for his unrestrained amassment of things — things amassed for the sole purpose of bringing him joy (Ecc 2:7–10) — the Teacher groans and gripes at his lot, at his futile grasping at the wind:
When I considered all that I had accomplished and what I had labored to achieve, I found everything to be futile and a pursuit of the wind. There was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecc 2:11)
In his wisdom, he tested the limits of life’s offerings to see if there was anything “under the sun” that could satisfy his soul. But satisfaction remained still an unreachable and unattainable possession. That’s because you cannot engineer your way out of emptiness. The delight of possessions often fades with the novelty of them. Grasping after earthly gain only leaves us to hunger for something deeper, richer, and truer than the trivial, temporal trinkets of life “under the sun.” It leaves you wanting more.
Pursuing wisdom and work.
In pursuit of something deeper, he leaves amusements and achievements behind to see if legacies could give him something different. “Then I turned to consider wisdom, madness, and folly . . . And I realized that there is an advantage to wisdom over folly, like the advantage of light over darkness.” (Ecc 2:12–13) But this, too, proved futile. The wreckage of time leaves no survivors in its wake. The wise and the foolish are left to the same fate. So concluded the Teacher: “The wise person has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. Yet I also knew that the one fate comes to them both.” (Ecc 2:14)
The pleasure seeker and the prudent sage both come to the end of their respective lives and reach the same conclusion: nothing can be carried with them. Your successes (or failures) “under the sun” have no bearing on the afterlife. Or as Zack Eswine notes, “Death is the trump card upon all these pleasures under the sun.”The great evening score of humanity remains the same as it’s always been: everyone dies. “What happens to the fool will also happen to me. Why then have I been overly wise?” (Ecc 2:15) This distressing reality exhausted our Teacher’s logic. It didn’t make sense to him that the wise and the foolish were both consigned to oblivion. (Ecc 2:16) his befuddlement was exasperated as he also recognized the injustice of success “under the sun”:
When there is a person whose work was done with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and he must give his portion to a person who has not worked for it, this too is futile and a great wrong. (Ecc 2:21)
The reality that the fruits of all his labor throughout his entire life would one day be given over to those who didn’t work for it grieved him. (Ecc 2:18–20) He couldn’t consolidate this notion with the great leveling agent of all lives, that is, death. “For what does a person get with all his work,” he laments, “and all his efforts that he labors at under the sun?” (Ecc 2:22) No amount of acquired knowledge or manufactured legacies could stave off his impending demise. Therefore, what’s the point? Why work yourself to death when the same fate comes to those who don’t work at all? “This too is futile.”
Pleasure’s place and tedious grace.
The Teacher’s confession throughout this chapter isn’t to be understood that there’s no pleasure to be had while we’re alive. Rather, there’s a different sort of pleasure that exists even when the light of life no longer shines, even when we’re not living “under the sun” anymore. He even hints at such when he concludes, “There is nothing better for a person than to eat, drink, and enjoy his work. I have seen that even this is from God’s hand, because who can eat and who can enjoy life apart from him?” (Ecc 2:24–25) This isn’t a recommendation or resignation to a self-indulgent existence, mind you. Our Teacher is not advocating or embracing a life of “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die!” Rather, he’s declaring that in the tedium of life in “once-Eden,” there’s grace to be found, and we can praise God for it.
What’s telling about the Teacher’s revelation in this chapter is that it shines a bright light on the common graces of man and their inherent goodness. As he describes his fervent pursuits to find consolation and contentment through amusements and achievements, he never demonizes the amusements and achievements themselves. What matters is how he handles them.
Our problem isn’t that we enjoy ourselves with the earthly pleasures God has created for us, but that we go to them for what they cannot offer: soul-peace. Our quest for life, liberty, and happiness isn’t necessarily the issue — it’s the solutions we arrive at that lead to our aggravation and exasperation. Our world was formed with recreations and leisures that were made to be enjoyed, ones specifically created by God himself for us. But we deceive ourselves into continued distress by going to them for what they were not made for and cannot provide. This can only result in the Teacher’s conclusion: “This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.”
This reminds me of something Kevin Durant said this past spring. In an interview with ESPN’s Chris Haynes, Durant tried to give a reason for his then-recent accumulation of technical fouls and increased aggression during games, leading to an uptick in ejections. He remarked,
It’s just my emotions and passion for the game . . . After winning that championship, I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.
The Larry O’Brien Trophy did nothing to change Durant’s outlook on the game. The issues he dealt with while playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder followed him all the way to the Bay as he donned a Golden State Warriors jersey. Getting a championship ring matters, but only to a certain degree. And then it doesn’t. “What we did as a team was special,” Durant goes on to say, “and I want to experience that again.” The tedium of the season mattered more than the trophy.
For Kevin Durant, the chasing of basketball trophies proved ineffective at giving him what he needed. For our Teacher, pleasure, possessions, and prestige proved just as inadequate at giving him the contentment he so longed for. And that’s precisely because “nothing new under the sun” can ever satisfy the deepest longings of who we are as humans. Nor were they meant to. But so as long as we’re searching for peace and satisfaction in the things “under the sun,” we’ll be chasing vanity after vanity. We’ll forever dwell in the emptiness and futility of “once-Eden.”
God intended his children to rest in his unchangeable promises, not untamable pleasures. Nothing outside of Christ himself can give you the rest and peace of Christ himself. (Mt 11:28–30) No other drink can relieve our incessant panting. Only the Living Water can quench our soul-thirst. (Jn 7:37) And as that thirst is quenched, your eyes are opened to the remarkable truth of the gospel that metes out timeless grace in all of life’s tedious griefs.
Grace understood in this way makes life meaningful. Which is to say, you can enjoy 82-game professional basketball schedules, or intimate dinner parties, or nights out with old roommates, or dates with your spouse. And you can enjoy them because they’re not futile. They’re not meaningless. They’re where grace is found. Grace is what gives the uneventful and unremarkable purpose beyond pleasure “under the sun.” In the heartache. In the laughter. In the struggle. In the meals. The seemingly tedious things that fill our vaporous lives are what matter most. They’re “from God’s hand.” So thank Jesus for them, and enjoy them to the glory of God.
Charles Bridges, A Commentary on Ecclesiastes (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009), 28.
Zack Eswine, Rediscovering Eden: The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R Publishing, 2014), 75.